It might seem like the impossible sell, how to make the business case for undertaking work on a pro-bono basis.
The first task is to define what is meant by pro-bono. Pro bono – a Latin term meaning “for the good of the public“. In the legal profession, it refers to the provision of legal services free of charge.
It might be argued that the role of business is to make the highest profit possible. If the goal is making profit, how can it be argued that there is a business case for undertaking pro-bono work?
In 2013 Esther F. Lardent wrote an article, The Business Case for in-house Pro Bono. The article opened with the following:
“Legal department lawyers, like lawyers in other practice settings, take on pro bono matters despite hectic work schedules for a variety of reasons: the distressing gap between those desperately in need of legal assistance and the available resources (a number of studies have found that 80 percent of low-income persons with a serious legal problem are unable to secure legal help); the ethical obligation to provide service that is at the core of every lawyer’s professional identity; the desire to use one’s skills and expertise to make the world a better place.
In-house legal departments – and their legal staff – do not provide volunteer legal services to enhance their professional stature, skills, or business goals. However, properly structured, implemented, and aligned pro bono programs can, in fact, enhance critical aspects of the operations of companies and their legal departments. The pro bono business case for law firms has been established.”
The article considered different arguments for legal departments engaging in pro-bono work.
Recruitment and Retention
The article made the point that:
“One study (Kelly Services, 2009) found that 85 percent of job seekers around the world and across all ages “are more likely to want to work for a company that is considered ethically and socially responsible.”.
“The departure of a valued attorney is a major financial loss, with total costs – interruption of service, search and transition expenses, etc. – typically exceeding the annual salary of the employee. Pro bono service, for some lawyers, can be important factor in promoting retention.”
The article made the point that employees who are engaged are more excited and engaged with their work. It is perhaps obvious to see the benefit that engaged employees would have for a business.
The article makes the point that:
“Pro bono is one-way legal departments can support employee engagement, demonstrate the company’s value to its employees, recognize employees for their contribution to the community, and promote positive teaming within the department, as well as cross-functionally.”
Corporate Social Responsibility/Corporate Citizenship
The article makes the point, and it is probably widely accepted, that organisations are aware of, and value, their corporate social responsibility. It is clear to many how engaging in pro-bono work would help fulfil an organisations social responsibility.
The article comments that:
“As large law firms have discovered, pro bono engagements provide critically important professional development opportunities not only for younger lawyers but also for more experienced counsel. Pro bono work enables lawyers to maintain their proficiency in areas such as litigation that are no longer a routine part of their daily work.”
Integration with the Company, the Community, and the Profession
Esther F. Lardent argues in the articles that:
“……pro bono work helps the legal department, and, through its counsel, the company as a whole to better understand the communities where it is doing business and to help ensure that the company is viewed as a good citizen and a good neighbour in its communities.”
That pro-bono work allows:
“A legal department at a company whose volunteers provide housing and food for the poor and homeless could use their legal skills to help those targeted by the company to become eligible for food stamps and to secure safe and affordable homes. In doing so, the legal department not only improves the outcomes for those whom the company is striving to help, it also demonstrates to its internal clients the value of the department’s legal skills.”
It might seem clear to the reader of this article how the above could be used to make the business case for pro-bono work.
Improved Teamwork and Morale
Perhaps unsurprisingly points made above about pro-bono work have been said to contribute to improved teamwork and morale for employees. It is clear why improved teamwork and morale among its workforce would assist a business.
Enhanced Inside/Outside Counsel Relationships
The article argues that by undertaking pro-bono work it will give opportunities for lawyers both within an organisation and without to work together. That in-house lawyers and their external colleagues will engage on work “off the clock” in a manner that strengthens mutual understanding and respect.
An obvious argument for the business case for pro-bono work is the improved reputation this work might bring to an organisation. The article puts it as follows:
“Consumers, regulators, shareholders, employees – all of these groups view the actions and initiatives of corporations in the larger context of corporate reputation. Studies indicate that charitable giving, both dollars and in-kind, as well as a demonstrated commitment to improving local communities are particularly convincing indicia of a “good” company.”
Joint pro bono protocol
The Law Society endorses the joint pro-bono protocol that is described as follows:
“The joint protocol promotes and supports high standards of pro bono work. It’s designed to make sure everyone is clear about what pro bono is and the standard to which it should be done.”
At first it might seem farcical to try and argue that there is a business case for engaging in pro-bono work. For the reasons set out above it can be argued that there is a business case for pro-bono work. Pro-bono work is something that every legal organisation should undertake for a variety of reasons, including that it makes business sense.
By David Marsh